Itineraries,  National Park Travel

A Perfect Death Valley National Park Itinerary: 2 or 3 Days Below Sea Level

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Can we all agree that our National Parks are really, really great? I mean, if you love National Parks, you already know the story of how they were established, the mission they serve, and have probably visited a few (or many) for yourself. One of my favorite parts about National Parks is how each park is different than the rest – in fact, the National Park Service is very conscientious about having a diverse collection of natural wonders in the locations that earn the coveted title of “National Park.”

In that same way, Death Valley National Park is truly unique. It is the hottest, driest, and lowest point in North America, and these harsh natural constraints have carved out a unique ecosystem in mountainous Southern California. If you’re considering a trip and want to plan a Death Valley National Park itinerary, you might want guidance on what to do, where to go, and how to survive in this weird and wild landscape.

Death Valley National Park Itinerary Hero

I made my first trip to Death Valley National Park in March 2022; it was a long overdue trip that had been delayed due to the global health crisis, but when it finally happened – it was totally worth the wait. During my three-day trip, I put serious mileage on my favorite hiking boots, gazed up at countless stars, and drank countless gallons of water to stay hydrated. I came home with tons of pictures and memories that already have me dreaming of a return trip.

Below you’ll find travel tips on visiting Death Valley, plus a suggested 2-day and 3-day Death Valley itinerary. As you’ll soon discover, there is so much to do in Death Valley that even three days isn’t enough – but you can see and do a lot during that time, plus will probably come home inspired to visit again.

In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Timbisha Shoshone and Newe (Western Shoshone) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Visiting Death Valley National Park

One Day in Death Valley - Sign

Death Valley is huge. I mean, like, Alaska huge – in fact, Death Valley National Park is the 5th largest national park in the United States – and the four larger national parks are in Alaska. It encompasses some 3.4 million acres (5,270 square miles), three quarters the size of Denali National Park and almost the same size as Glacier Bay National Park. All this to say: it’s big and you can’t possibly see all of Death Valley in one day, three days, or – I’d argue – even a week!

Don’t let that discourage you from visiting though. Having just 2-3 days in Death Valley is more than enough time to see many of the top sights.

You can reach Death Valley pretty easily from either Las Vegas (where I visited from) or Los Angeles.

  • From Las Vegas to Death Valley, it’s a two-hour drive on either US-95 through Beatty or NV-160 and CA-190 through Pahrump. I recommend arriving via Beatty and leaving via Pahrump to make a scenic loop.
  • From Los Angeles to Death Valley, it’s a 3.5-hour drive along CA-14 until it meets CA-190 near Panamint Springs.

As part of the National Park system, Death Valley operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter. Here are your options:

  • The private vehicle entrance fee, good for 7 days, is $30. This makes sense if you have more than one day at Death Valley and plan to drive in or out several times; even if you’re only visiting for one day, you’ll need to pay this fee.
  • You can walk into the park for $15 per person, good for 7 days. To be honest, I have no idea why you’d walk into Death Valley, but it’s an option. (This pass also applies for bicyclists.)
  • An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth itYou can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.

You can read more about the fees – and double-check that the above is accurate – on the Death Valley NPS website.

Finally, Death Valley has a number of roads within the park, but the most important ones you need to know for my recommended Death Valley itinerary are:

  • California 190 (CA-190), which bisects the park from east to west (more or less).
  • Badwater Road, which runs north-south from Furnace Creek to Badwater Basin.
  • Artist’s Drive, which loops off of Badwater Road to visit Artist’s Pallette.
  • Scotty’s Castle Road, which runs into the northern part of the park.
  • Racetrack Valley Road, which runs through the Racetrack.

There are many other roads and you’ll encounter plenty of junctions when exploring Death Valley, but these are the three main roads that most people will traverse during their visit – and the only ones you’ll drive on during my suggested one-day Death Valley itinerary.

Regarding parking, there is a fair amount of parking in most parts of the park, though it always pays to visit the popular areas earlier in the day to ensure you get a spot. I’ve laid out the activities I suggest for your one day in Death Valley with this in mind.

The 5 Best Things to Do in Death Valley

Before jumping into my suggested Death Valley National Park itinerary, it’s helpful to start by detailing some of the top things to do during your visit. While you might see much longer lists of “things to do in Death Valley,” usually they include attractions and sights on the list – rather than actual things to do. As you’ll see, I include attractions and sights below within each of these things to do.

1. Hiking

Hands down, the best way to explore Death Valley National Park is on your own two feet. This does require planning ahead: you’ll need to rise early or stay out later (with an awareness of sunset times) to ensure you aren’t caught out exposed to the relentless sun during the heat of the day.

During my 3-day trip to Death Valley (about 48 hours in the valley itself), I did 20 miles of hiking – way more than I normally do on a trip! In fact, my friend and I had to cut our last hike short and I was so bummed because I really want to complete that trail… That goes to show just how incredible the trails are!

Here are some of the must-do hikes in Death Valley:

  • Salt Valley Interpretive Creek – An easy, flat boardwalk hike that follows a creek to small salt flats.
  • Darwin Falls – A nice three-mile trail that’s mostly flat with a few wet or muddy spots, which ends at a waterfall. (Yes, there’s a waterfall in Death Valley!)
  • Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral – A three-mile moderate hike with incredible rock formations that’s perfect in the morning or late afternoon.
  • Mosaic Canyon – A 4-mile moderate-to-challenging hike in three parts, which makes for a very interesting experience.
  • Sidewinder Canyon – A challenging 5-mile hike with the only slot canyons in Death Valley. (This is the one we had to shorten – it is SO cool but I do not look forward to doing the initial climb on this trail again…)

There are dozens of trails in Death Valley to choose from, but these are a few of my favorites. If you’re up for an adventure and willing to walk, climb, or scramble to get there, you’ll be well-rewarded in Death Valley.

2. Autotouring

If hiking is not your style, never fear – it wasn’t mine until the past few years. Death Valley National Park also has some awesome driving routes and sights that can be seen with minimal effort. As I was #vanlifing my trip to Death Valley, I was keen to explore with the van I rented from Travellers Autobarn too.

The main routes that are ‘must-drives’ in Death Valley are:

  • Badwater Road, which runs down to Badwater Basin, one of the top sights.
  • Artist’s Drive, which passes Artist’s Palette and some of the most colorful and scenic parts of the Amargosa Range in Death Valley.
  • The Racetrack, a high-clearance dirt road that goes to one of the most fascinating natural wonders in the Valley – but is definitely challenging to reach.
  • Twenty Mule Team Canyon, another dirt road that I haven’t personally driven but is on my return list due to its scenic badlands views.

You can also easily drive to other sites like Zabriskie Point and Devil’s Golf Course.

3. Sightseeing

Speaking of sights, Death Valley National Park is home to many awesome sights. No matter how you visit them, be sure to see:

  • Badwater Basin, the lowest point on North America
  • Devil’s Golf Course, home to weird salt formations as far as the eye can see
  • Zabriskie Point, a scenic view of the Death Valley Badlands
  • Artist’s Palette, with its colorful hillsides
  • Dante’s View, looking out over the valley and perfect for sunset
  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the towering dunes in the central part of the park
  • The Racetrack, where stones move on their own

These are the main ones, but there are so many more – Ubehebe Crater, Scotty’s Castle, Father Crowley Vista Point and Rainbow Canyon. You probably can’t visit them all in just 2-3 days in Death Valley, but then you’ll just want to plan a return trip as I do.

4. Enjoy Sunrise & Sunset

Sunrise and sunset are magical times in Death Valley; the humidity and weather patterns make for some spectacular viewing opportunities. During my visit, we were able to enjoy sunrise and sunset every day – each was beautiful and unique.

There are many spots for viewing sunrise and sunset in Death Valley National Park; most places that are good for one are good for both. Popular spots include Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, just to inspire you to consider rising early and planning for sunset too.

5. Stargazing

Finally, don’t think that just because the sun has set, the day is over – Death Valley is one of the best places for stargazing in Southern California and the United States as a whole! Because of its particular weather patterns, low humidity (aka no humidity), and distance from major urban centers, Death Valley National Park is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park and has great stargazing opportunities. You can stargaze on your own, or attend a ranger-led program if you want.

I have an entire guide to stargazing in Death Valley on my Space Tourism Guide site if you’re interested in learning more about where to go and how to make the most of the dark skies above Death Valley.

How Many Days in Death Valley National Park

One Day in Death Valley Hero

The hardest part of planning any National Park trip is knowing how many days to spend there to “see it all.” However, I’m pretty sure if you ask the park rangers in Death Valley or any park, they’ll tell you that an entire career still isn’t enough time to see it all.

My short answer, whenever anyone asks me how long to spend somewhere, is “as much time as you have,” but you may be trying to decide between an extra day in Death Valley versus somewhere else in this part of the country – and so it’s hard for me to say “spend all your time in Death Valley” when there are so many other great things to do nearby. (Heck, there are even a number of other great National Parks near Death Valley, including Joshua Tree, Sequoia, and King’s Canyon!)

That said, I believe that 2-3 days is the ideal length of time to visit Death Valley National Park. This number of days will let you see all of the park’s main sights and get a sense of if you want to plan a return trip someday to explore even more.

Assuming you follow my advice and give yourself 2-3 days in Death Valley, here’s my suggested Death Valley National Park itinerary to help you finish planning. You’ll spend two days in the main part of the park, and if you have a third day and the right vehicle, you’ll explore off the beaten path (aka off the paved roads) to see more of the park than most visitors do.

A 2- or 3-Day Death Valley National Park Itinerary

Ready to know how I recommend spending your time in Death Valley? Let’s dive in!

Day 1: The Badlands & Badwater Road

On your first day in Death Valley, it’s time to get out and see the main sights. This means taking in the time to visit sights along CA-190 if you haven’t seen them yet. Start by rising early to make the drive for sunrise at Dante’s View. This is one of the most scenic viewpoints overlooking Death Valley, but it’s a bit of a drive to reach; as an alternative, you could do sunrise at Zabriskie Point instead. (Be sure to stop at Zabriskie Point too if you choose Dante’s View.)

Afterward, make your way back down toward Furnace Creek and stop by the Visitor Center to check in. This is the best way to know what’s going on in the park during your visit, including ranger-led stargazing programs.

Then return to drive down Badwater Road. I recommend driving to the far end, 15 miles south, where you can explore Badwater Basin. This is the lowest point on North America and one of those bucket-list spots to visit in Death Valley. There’s a quarter-mile trail out onto the salt flats, but you can walk much further if you’re up for it – don’t forget to grab water as the sun bakes the salt pan and it will get hot and dry very fast.

From Badwater Basin, head back north, making stops as you choose at places like Devil’s Golf Course (more weird and wild salt formations) and Natural Bridge Trailhead. The latter is a moderate hike that takes you to a cool rock bridge; the trail continues on to give you a different view further up in the mountains, but I stopped and turned around under the bridge.

Continuing further north, turn on the entrance to Artist’s Drive. This one-way nine-mile loop is incredibly scenic, especially at Artist’s Palette. There’s a small parking area and you can get out to take photos or hike among the colorful hills. Don’t be surprised if you see a few folks doing Instagram photos there, as I did! This is also a great spot to have lunch if you packed it with you (which I recommend for each day!).

Finally, as the afternoon wears on, head north again along Badwater Road to the Golden Canyon Trailhead. This is a very popular trailhead so parking might be tricky – but it’s also one of the best hikes. Golden Canyon itself has some stunning rock formations but what makes it special is access to other trails in the area, including the Red Cathedral spur. All in, Golden Canyon-Red Cathedral is a three-mile out-and-back hike with truly awesome views at the far end. Again, bring lots of water and sun protection if you’re hiking in the afternoon as parts of the trail are completely exposed.

As the day winds down, I recommend staying in the Furnace Creek area (either at a hotel or campground, more on that below). You can attend a stargazing program if one is offered by the park rangers before calling it a night.

Day 2: Stovepipe Wells & More of Death Valley

Rise and shine for another day exploring Death Valley; this time you’ll head to the west part of the park. Since you’re staying the first night in Furnace Creek, I recommend starting your day with a gentle walk at Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. This is a lovely area where you can walk along the creek, see salt flats, and try to spot the Salt Creek pupfish, which is unique to this waterway.

Then continue up toward the Stovepipe Wells part of the park; from here, I recommend setting out on a hike in Mosaic Canyon. This is a four-mile trail in three parts – each one gets a bit more challenging so you can decide how far you’re willing to go and how hard you want to work. The trail ends at a dry fall, so you’ll have to turn back and undo your work, even if you make it to the end. This was the first hike that I did in Death Valley and still one of my favorites.

Next, I recommend heading back down to Stovepipe Wells for lunch; there’s a restaurant here if you want something more substantial or you can eat your own packed lunch. If your car is equipped for off-roading, you can then do a scenic drive down Emigrant Canyon Road as far as you feel comfortable driving. There are some epic canyon views and vistas along the way.

As the day winds down, head to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for a final hike and sunset. The sun goes down quickly, so I recommend bringing a flashlight if you plan to hike more than a quarter-mile out onto the dunes (the summit of the high dune is 1 mile each way). It’s easy to get disoriented or lost among the dunes especially as the sun goes down.

On this night, my accommodation recommendations are dependent on your plans for tomorrow:

  • If you are planning to spend the third day in Death Valley and follow my suggestions below, I’ll explain which one to choose in the next section…
  • If you’re planning to return to L.A. the next day, stay in Panamint Springs.
  • If you’re planning to return to Las Vegas the next day, stay in Stovepipe Wells.

Day 3: On the Racetrack

Before launching into today’s activities, there are a couple of caveats:

  1. You must have a high-clearance 4WD vehicle that can handle Racetrack Valley Road; if you’re renting a standard vehicle, I would double-check with them before driving this road as there are no services and you don’t want to get stuck. If you’re renting a high-clearance vehicle (or driving your own), be sure to have a spare tire and extra supplies in case you encounter any issues.
  2. The primary route to the Racetrack, Scotty’s Castle Road, is currently closed following flood damage, through 2023. This means that if you plan to visit between now and then, you’ll need to take an alternative route and a lot spend more time reaching the Racetrack. There are two options:
    1. Take dirt tracks from the west part of the park near Panamint Springs, including Saline Valley Road and Lippencourt Road to Racetrack Valley Road.
    2. Head east out of the park by way of the Beatty Cutoff Road/NV-374 back to US-95 to NV-267 which passes Scotty’s Castle and connects to Racetrack Valley Road.

In either case, this day is a lot of driving, even if you split it up with an overnight on your way back out of the park. I also recommend bringing a GPS too so you can stay oriented as there’s no cell service to guide you once you leave the main roads in Death Valley.

That said, I still think it’s worth it if you have the time. The Racetrack is a unique place where rocks appear to move on their own across the ground, and the limited access means that you’ll encounter far fewer other visitors during your day in this part of the park.

Oh, and regarding where to stay on the night of Day 2, I recommend researching both alternative routes to the Racetrack that I recommended above; if you choose option 1, stay in Panamint Springs or if you choose option 2, stay in Stovepipe Wells. This will help cut off a little bit of driving time each day. On Day 3, you’ll need to make your way back out of this remote part of the park for accommodation; you can stay another night at the same place as Day 2, or make a loop of it and stay at the other place for your final night.

If you do some research and determine that you’d rather not drive all the way to the Racetrack, there are some other great hikes to do on Day 3 instead. Check out Darwin Falls (near Panamint Springs) or Sidewinder Canyon (south of Badwater Basin); both are excellent, interesting hikes with different features than anything you’ll see in the rest of your Death Valley itinerary.

Where to Stay in Death Valley

Speaking of where to stay in Death Valley, surprisingly, there are quite a few options for where to stay in Death Valley. For lodging, there are four properties within Death Valley:

You can also camp in Death Valley National Park. There are nine campgrounds in total; three have vehicle restrictions and another three are only open late fall through spring (so there are six winter campgrounds and three summer campgrounds). During my visit, I was renting a van from Travellers Autobarn and that gave me the flexibility to stay in different parts of the park each night; the first night I stayed out in Panamint Springs, and the second night at Sunset Campground since Furnace Creek and Texas Springs were both full.

Have any other questions about planning your own Death Valley National Park itinerary? Let me know in the comments!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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